History and Legend
Cats became objects of worship in Egypt because of their ability to keep down the rodent population in Egypt's economically important grain fields along the Nile. The Egyptian cat goddess Bast, or Bastet, depicted as having the body of a woman and the head of a cat, was the goddess of love and fertility as well. Egyptian cats were also used for sport by their owners. Attached to leashes, these animals hunted birds for the family table; a boomerang flung by the master brought the birds down and the cats, unleashed, would retrieve them. Because they were economically useful and were believed to ensure many children for a family, cats were so revered that they were mummified and buried either with their owners or in specially designated cemeteries.
Despite Egyptian laws that forbade the removal of the sacred cats, Phoenician sailors smuggled them out of the country. Cats were traded along with other treasures from the Middle East and in antiquity could be found throughout the Mediterranean area. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Romans were the first to bring cats to the British Isles.
Throughout much of the Middle Ages, cats were feared and hated. Because of their nocturnal habits, they were believed to consort with the devil. This association with witchcraft has been responsible for many acts of cruelty toward cats through the centuries. The Renaissance, in contrast, was the golden age for cats. Almost everyone had one, from members of royal families and their staffs to the peasantry.
The first domestic cats in North America arrived with the colonists and were employed to keep the rodent population under control in the settlers' fields, barns, and homes. Cats are said to have played an important part in keeping rats out of the California gold mines.
In India cats often played an important part in religious or occult ceremonies. In South America the Inca revered sacred cats; cats are represented in pre-Columbian Peruvian artifacts. Cats continue to be worshiped as deities in countries such as Thailand and China.
"Cat," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2003
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